Islands in the distance. My mother
holding out a plate of little cakes–
as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age
hungry for life, utterly confident–
– Vita Nova,
“I remember, changed in no detail….” It is a fantasy, unlike the poem from which the quote is taken. Gluck of course knows this. Exploring the nature of memory, and therefore of mind, makes the best poet a philosopher, and the best philosopher a scientist, and of course the greatest scientist must be all three. A true memory, a moment that can be recalled without the scars of time and desire, must remain, as Gluck points out, unexposed to light, to thought, to the tampering manipulations of the mind.
Well, then, must it be the case that there is no such thing as real memory? Our experiences are either hidden by layers of time or they are carted about with us, and morph with age, and sorrow, and the emergence of an end. Very rarely, if ever, do we look back with an intention to understand the truth about our lives, or the lives of those now gone; more rarely still do we look ahead with clarity or fearlessness. And of course the present is a muddle we just want to get the Hell away from, so what is left?
Look back, look back, I said to my husband. Were these habits, now grown to mossy stone, not even at the explosive beginning so obviously present to us, had we chosen to look up? Oh, yes.. there was that moment, I remember it so clearly. And yet, and yet, does the memory not serve some current purpose? Usually, for me, as analytical and competitive as I am, to win an argument, to carry the point, even to the edge of memory’s abuse.
The wavering angles of the self: we cannot bear it. It is too painful to see that one doesn’t ever really… exist in some profound sense, especially when one is taught from infancy that it is experience, and remembered experience, that constitutes self-hood, a personality (the sacred god of our culture), and differentiates us from… well from everything else. It is our experience, what we do with experience, how we manipulate and control our minds (which are out of control anyway, despite or because of the grand effort), that grants us the superiority of personhood, and creates the silhouette that will define and protect us as we move through childhood, into adulthood, until the silhouette thickens and hardens to an impenetrable black. A walking death: this is what most of us eventually undertake.
Finally we are filled with ourselves, and nothing else. And still we cannot face the pain of the self’s distortion, and so we become bitter, or romantic, or nostalgic for days that never existed anyway. Ephemera. How beautiful and sad to discover that ephemera in the Greek, its root, roughly means “lasts for a day.” But we want the collection of our memories to last a lifetime, and to give meaning and definition to our lives no matter what mental gymnastics we must execute to force memory to fit into our ideas about and addiction to our immutable Selves.
I have been thinking a lot about nostalgia, and memory, and how toxic the former can be on a mind and on a relationship; really, on entire communities and countries. Ronald Reagan was the archetype of the collective yearning for a nostalgic past that never was, just as Donald Trump is now trying to cash in on our fears and yearnings by promising to make things as they were: better, America ascending (and without that uppity black man living in a White House, so much of the subtext reads), America ruling by being both expansionist warmonger and isolationist King.
Trump promises, in other words, all the conflicting desires the mind wants to soothe itself with; it doesn’t matter that the balm is sealed in a poisonous tincture, it is a balm nonetheless.
What, then, is the difference between nostalgia and fear? Certainly nostalgia and desire are one and the same, the two are simply slightly different sides of the same mental patternings. And almost all desire, it seems, is rooted at least partially in fear: fear of losing control (whatever that means), fear of losing one’s sexuality, fear of fear, fear of being present to whatever passes in front of one’s felt experience, even for a moment; fear, I think, defines us more than anything, and so the great yearning that is nostalgia acts as a powerful, sometimes necessary and beautiful salve to the terror that is existence.
Richard Freeman, my primary spiritual teacher, is exquisite in his presentation of meditation, and “how” one meditates (can’t be taught, as far as my simple mind can ascertain). “It begins,” he says, “with the mind saying: Anything but this. Anything, oh anything but this. This of course being the actual moment in front of you.”
And so one sits. And immediately the stories begin. The spinning thread, ceaseless, without end, unwinds as if Arachne herself has taken up quarters in one’s frontal cortex. Yearnings and physical pain and sorrow and depression and memory. Especially memory. Remember when? Oh, then I was happy. In those days I was happy. Before the sickness, before the child, before the childlessness, before the money came, before the money went, before her death, before we fucked, before I started to try and sit with myself. Jesus. Anything but this.
My mother is cleaning house. She brought over my tiara that I wore on my wedding day. I looked so beautiful on that day. Skinny and sun-touched, my hair in golden ringlets down to my waist, my waist so tiny the tailor couldn’t bring the dress in anymore. The dress had no back, only a light double string of pearls held the entire thing on my body, and it was made of two thin layers of silk so thin I couldn’t wear underwear. Red lips and kohl-lined eyes, a klonopin champagne high with my best friend before the descent down the stairs with my dapper father. It was sunny and then as my betrothed and I kissed thunder came out of the sky and the rain came down, making the photos look like pointillist images by an experimenting Signac.
Oh. How nostalgic I am becoming. I also remember: should I be doing this? I look so incredibly fat. My arms aren’t toned enough. We should have eloped. This man is beautiful and loyal, but I kind of… hammer-smashed my way into his heart. Wasn’t I on cocaine binges just a couple years ago? What the fuck am I doing?
This afternoon I put the tiara on for the first time since my wedding all those moons and years ago. I felt nothing. No nostalgia, no yearning. Is that a good thing? Or am I waiting for a memory once buried so deep to make its way to the light, exist in some pure form, just for a second, like a firefly flash, before the light of the mind grinds it down to something else, belonging, today, to some other person?